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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
February 17, 2011

Every Day Is Special

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Basement, Mosley, Profilers, and Bones

In case you're wondering how you'll spend your days when you retire, here's a perfectly splendid idea: Build a 1900-style town square in your basement. No, I'm not talking about a scale model, unless you mean the scale "one inch equals one inch."

Of course, here in Greensboro basements are pretty much nonexistent. Apparently there are some things that people in a land with a high water table are simply not meant to do.

What's really interesting about this guy's basement hobby is how meticulous he is. He's doing fine finish work, as if he were building for the ages. But unless he lives forever, someday that house is going to be sold. And the first thing the new owners will do is take a crowbar to the whole basement.

Or maybe not. Maybe the new owner will recognize that this is something special, and treasure it and bring selected guests to see it.

Hey, if you can afford the money and time, you're allowed to build a folly without getting hauled off to the loony bin. Check out the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch_popup?v=DmrCuaZRO7A .

*

Did you know that there's such a thing as a natural nuclear reactor? No, I'm not talking about the Sun -- that's a fusion reactor anyway. A billion years ago (give or take) there was a reaction between ground water and natural uranium ore in a region in Africa.

The groundwater would seep in, infiltrating the uranium deposits and bringing together enough stray neutrons to start the uranium reacting. The result was enough heat to disperse the groundwater and stop the reaction . . . till it started up again.

Now it looks like there was once a much larger natural nuclear reactor on Mars, one in which a much larger amount of uranium had a "catastrophic" release that amounted to a small nuclear weapon going off, spreading radioactive fallout over a large area. (See the full article at http://www.lpi.usra.edu/meetings/lpsc2011/pdf/1097.pdf .)

I can see it now. A nuclear bomb goes off with Iranian or North Korean fingerprints all over it. They turn out their pockets and say, "It wasn't us! It just happened naturally."

*

Walter Mosley first came to my attention because Bill Clinton mentioned enjoying his novels.

Back in the 1960s I first read Ian Fleming's You Only Live Twice because John F. Kennedy had named him as his favorite writer. This explained why Kennedy had spy fantasies that led to many foolish and deadly adventures in the CIA while he had control of it, and I'll confess I first picked up the audio of Mosley's Devil in a Blue Dress just to see what presidential pathology would be revealed in his pleasure reading.

What can I say? Bill Clinton is a lot smarter than JFK was. (But then, so are most people I know.) I quickly forgot about my loathing for Clinton and instead fell in love with the dark, complicated, and yet hopeful and yearning stories of Easy Rawlins, a black World War II vet struggling to make a place for himself in the mean streets of Los Angeles.

Every Easy Rawlins novel was a first-rate private detective story -- but, far more importantly, a well-researched and heartfelt account of African-American life in the 1950s and 1960s. Mosley set the novels about three years apart, however -- unlike Sue Grafton's alphabet mysteries, which are about four months apart. I could see the handwriting on the wall: Mosley was going to run out of Easy Rawlins stories long before I was tired of reading them. (Which was likely to be never.)

But then, Mosley was too creative to allow himself to be locked into one detective's adventures or even into one genre. He has branched out all over the place, and every hero is troubled yet courageous, and every story is surprising and gritty and real.

Where the Easy Rawlins mysteries followed one of the tropes of the detective genre -- the dangerous friend, Mouse, who will do the morally terrible things that need doing but the hero is too scrupulous to do (see Robert Crais's Joe Pike and Robert B. Parker's Hawk) -- other heroes in Mosley's fiction do their own dirty work, or leave it undone.

The constant is that you come out of a Mosley novel feeling illuminated: You have seen the human spirit at its finest, even in the midst of terrible times.

I just finished reading two Mosley novels. The Right Mistake is about an ex-con named Socrates Fortlow, first introduced in the story collection Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, who is determined to do some serious healing in his old neighborhood in Los Angeles. He wangles the rent on a semidetached house where he starts bringing people together just to talk.

But when this harmless activity starts drawing rival gang leaders and peace threatens to break out, the police start looking for a way to get this guy back in jail where he belongs. The novel leads us through a gripping trial and a touching love story; it's Mosley at his best.

With his most recent novel, The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, Mosley sets himself an almost impossible task: To tell a story from the point of view of an old man who is losing his mind to Alzheimer's. Mosley does this brilliantly -- the trouble is it makes the opening of the novel flatout hard to read.

What can I say? It's a devilishly hard thing to do, but it's worth doing, and Mosley did it about as well as it can be done. But there is no question that the opening of the book can be confusing and offputting.

I promise you, however, that Mosley soon finds a fascinating plot device to make the narrative viewpoint much easier to follow, so that if you earn your way through the difficult opening you'll get to Mosley's clear-eyed storytelling at its best. Again, there's a love story (I think because Mosley would find a loveless world impossible to dwell in long enough to write a book).

Again, there are crimes to solve and evil that must be put out of the lives of good people. Yet Mosley never writes the same book twice -- we are always taken someplace new.

Twenty years ago, Walter Mosley was one of the finest writers working in America. If anything, he's better now. Whether you read about Easy Rawlins, Fearless Jones, Leonid McGill, or Socrates Fortlow, you will be well-rewarded. Meanwhile, in reviewing Amazon's selection of Mosley titles, I've discovered several of his books that I didn't know existed. So I have new pleasures in store for me, as well.

*

Criminal Minds has been on the air since 2005, but I chose never to watch it until a couple of months ago. I avoided it because I realized, about ten years ago, that I was sick of serial killers. I had read enough about the real ones and the way their minds worked that the idea of reading about or watching made-up ones just made me feel dark and tired.

Add to that the fact that I've read enough about profilers to know that the early claims about their remarkable ability to "know" a criminal without meeting him were equal parts wishful thinking and bushwa. Profiling is exactly the same sort of nonsense as "psychohistory" -- Fawn Brodie's claim to be able to psychologically analyze historical figures just from the documents about them. (Her Jefferson biography many years ago was a perfect demonstration of the uselessness of her method.)

But if I can enjoy a TV series about a medium by regarding it as fantasy, I can watch a show about profilers by regarding their "abilities" as a sort of science fiction: Here's what it might be like if the FBI actually had people who were almost always right.

Criminal Minds suffers from some of the normal absurdities of the ensemble detective show. To keep the viewers from suffering through the tedious parts of police work, shows like Law and Order: SVU, Castle, The Mentalist, and Criminal Minds all use the same technique: While two characters are telling each other what they just found out, another character walks up with his new information just at the moment when it's needed.

It happens over and over, week after week, and they're barely trying to disguise it any more. But it's not as if I can think of a better way to get through the story efficiently while bringing all the information to the viewer's attention in a clear way.

So, let's see. Tired of serial killer fiction, skeptical of profilers, tired of obvious expository gimmicks . . . why did I start watching Criminal Minds, exactly?

For the writing and the cast, I'm afraid. Thomas Gibson, who was youthfully stodgy when he was Greg on Dharma and Greg, has grown into an actor who can be believable as a tortured soul who is also a powerful team leader. Shemar Moore and Paget Brewster are both compelling screen presences.

Watching back episodes that TiVo had recorded without being asked, I caught some of the episodes from the early years, when Mandy Patinkin was on the show. Oh, yeah, that's another reason I stayed away from Criminal Minds at first. In Chicago Hope, Patinkin's over-acting and, near the end of his run, his horrible clown phase, caused me to write him off completely. I simply did not want to see him on TV again.

But it turns out that he had better writing to work with in Criminal Minds, and perhaps he had learned the virtue of restraint. Anyway, I liked his episodes, but I'm still glad that Joe Mantegna has brought in an interesting once-retired-agent character to replace him.

It happens that one of the episodes I found on my TiVo was his first; I also saw the pivotal episode where the unfinished business that brought him back to the FBI was finally resolved. It was a strong story, very moving.

But the prize of the cast is Matthew Gray Gubler, who plays the brilliant quirky academic in a perfect natural way (unlike Kirsten Vangsness's annoyingly overcute portrayal of computer-whiz Penelope Garcia). The episode where Gubler's Dr. Reid overwhelms a murderous death row inmate with chatter was a tour-de-force, both for the writer and for Gubler.

Many of the stories don't involve your normal sadistic serial killer. I don't find torture entertaining, so if that's what the plot summary promises, I delete the episode unwatched. But the writers mix it up rather well, so there's plenty of episodes that I can enjoy.

Yeah, that's just what I needed -- yet another series to record and watch while it runs in strip syndication on A&E. But that's how I discovered Law & Order decades ago; having missed it completely on its original run, I got hooked on the reruns that A&E was running. Think of it as the second-chance/catch-up method of series watching.

What next? Am I going to get hooked on Bones?

Well, yes. Just a little hooked. I happened to catch a rerun of an episode that flashed back to when beefcake FBI agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz, whom we first met as Angel on Buffy) first worked with forensic pathologist Dr. Temperance "Bones" Brennan (Emily Deschanel).

This is another series I had deliberately avoided, because it looked like it was going to be a typical teasing sexual-tension show, involving an impossible number of near-magical insights from forensic anthropology, the way Criminal Minds uses near-magical profilers.

But in that one episode, I found the writing clever enough to give the actors something to work with, and while I suspect the strangely bone-dependent cases will grow mind-numbingly repetitive, the acting may just overcome it. So I'll give Bones a few more tries.

Isn't it nice to live in a time when you can get old episodes of still-running shows pretty much whenever you want? I remember, when cable was new, wondering what in the world they'd do with a hundred channels. Now I know -- somewhere in the mix, you can find channels that give you a chance to catch up on good stuff you missed.


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